St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Third Wednesday of Lent (March 2, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Katharina Schutz Zell (1498-1562)

Today's woman of the Reformation is Katharina Schutz Zell. From her own perspective, she was a church mother ("Kirchenmutter"). She saw herself as being called by God to care for the church and its people, and she cared for a diverse flock of Christian men and women. She was also the most published female lay theologian of her time. By her example, she presented an option to Protestant women of her day that most of them did not strive for or manage to achieve.

It seems to me that Katharina Schutz Zell was very much like Argula von Grumbach, a pamphleteer from Bavaria. Katharina did her work principally in Strasbourg. And she offered a wide-ranging interpretation of what being a Christian and a Christian spouse-in her case, a pastor's spouse-could mean.

Some writers consider Katharina the most interesting of Reformation women. She presented herself as her husband's equal helpmate and partner in ministry, and extended that role outside their household. She expanded the reformers' vision of women as domestic partners in their capacities as spouses, mothers, and household managers to include a call to speak out and to act in church and society. She understood her role as a church mother to be an office that came with responsibilities and authority.

Katharina unfortunately buried her own infants when they were yet young. But she fostered the children of others and extended her care to her entire community through the hospitality of her parsonage and the extension ministry through the congregation her husband served as pastor.

Katharina's context was the free city of Strasbourg with its historic bishop's seat and visible presence of clergy, monastic, and other religious. Born on July 15, 1497 to a well-to-do artisan family, she was one of six surviving children. Her adoption of Protestant perspectives occurred at the age of about 24 after she read Luther's works and listened to Protestant sermons. However, she wrote of her inclination to a religious life from the tender age of 10, when she dedicated herself to the church and the proclamation of God's good news. Her words: "Since I was ten years old I have been a church mother, a nurturer of the pulpit and school."

Her early spirituality was influenced by her contemporaries' deeply felt insecurity about salvation and their anxiety over the omnipresence of death in their society. Luther's theology about the gift-nature of salvation allowed her to change focus and embrace this new perspective on the gospel. She shifted from worrying about her own salvation to becoming a "fisher of people" and assuring others of their salvation and God's grace.

Katharina came to know her future husband first as a parishioner. She appreciated his sermons about the gospel of liberation. Matthias Zell had come to Strasbourg in 1518 as the new priest of the large cathedral parish of St. Lorenz. Without calling himself a Lutheran, he was among the town's leading preachers to articulate public criticism of the current Roman Catholic theology and corruption. They married even before Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora. Katharina Schutz Zell was influenced by Luther's teachings on the matter, and wrote that she married for a vocational reason. She was convinced that she was called to marry Matthias Zell as an expression of her faith in God and her love for others. That's not necessarily the kind of motivation I'd be looking for in a marriage, but it seems to have worked for them.

Matthias and Katharina were married by the reformer Martin Bucer in 1523. They then joined in an early morning mass, where she confessed her Protestant faith and received communion in both kinds. She there received the cup for the first time in her life.

It is notable that this introduction of clergy marriage caused scandal in the town. Katharina's public defense of her marriage on theological grounds added fuel to the fire, as did the direction in which she took her new role as a pastor's wife. The cloud of controversy would remain a constant part of her life as she sought to fulfill her calling to be a church mother.

Her marriage, of course, provided the soil for continued theological cultivation and maturation. Matthias was supportive, and even commissioned her to be a "mother to the poor and refugees." She learned from him, from books, and from the relationships they had with leading figures from different sides of the Reformation. They visited Luther in Wittenberg (1538) and met Philipp Melanchthon. They hosted Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in their home and corresponded with others. Katharina remained particularly devoted to Luther's theology throughout her life.

On one occasion, she even dared to disagree with Luther and to advise him. In a letter about the Lord's Supper, she offered that he might downplay the differences in interpretation among theologians of the day. It was part of her ecumenical thinking. And Luther did write to her on at least one occasion.

Katharina was inspired by the early church's diaconate and the strong female figures in scripture. In her multidimensional call, she embraced the identity of apostle, deacon, and even prophet in a time when women and children were being called to join the work of the kingdom. With her well-rounded knowledge, many gifts, empathy, and desire to make a difference, she made an essential contribution to the life of her congregation and the evolution of the Reformation in Strasbourg. Her childlessness proved a tragic blessing in this regard, providing her the time and energy to be deeply involved in ministry.

Like the Luthers in Wittenberg, the Zells set an example in Strasbourg for a Protestant parsonage. They had an open-door policy and provided endless hospitality. They opened their house to everyone, ready to feed and offer shelter and, on the side, argue cordially with those who had not yet come to understand their new take on the gospel.

Katharina came to be so revered for her pastoral presence that important people would specifically request that she attend them as they were sick or dying. Her diaconal work and involvement in town affairs honored reforming notions about works of compassion and justice as a continuation of right worship and proclamation. Somewhat frustrated by pastors, she did what she expected from them.

Her writings, as with most of the women of the Reformation, tended to be less directly about theology and more practical in nature. She wrote texts in response to particular situations, and yet they include considerable theological reflection. Her works fall roughly into three categories: polemical, catechetical, and pastoral, with the latter dominating. She wrote her first two booklets during the first two years of her marriage, one for the pastoral education of women whose husbands were trapped in Strasbourg after losing to their Catholic opponents, and another as a feisty defense of clerical marriage.

Here's a quote: "With God's help I was also the first woman in Strasbourg who opened the way for clerical marriage...since I saw the great fear and furious opposition to clerical marriages, and also the great harlotry of the clergy, I myself married a priest with the intention of encouraging and making a way for all Christians...many people have been greatly amazed by my marriage."

Perhaps one of her better-known and useful pieces was a hymn book. She made intelligent use of the material available to her, displaced unacceptable songs with biblical songs and with lyrics resonating with Protestant theology. Her hymns educated and empowered the laity. The hymnbook was inexpensive and so easily available. It nurtured lay spirituality, lent itself to home use, and enhanced people's involvement in worship.It was published in four smaller books, consisting of 159 songs that originated in part from a 1531 Bohemian Brethren's hymns. It was the first hymnal to be published in German and the only one to appear at the time in Strasbourg.

She wrote: "I found such an understanding of the work of God in this songbook that I want all people to understand it. Indeed, I ought much rather to call it a teaching, prayer, and praise book than a songbook. However, the little word 'song' is well and properly spoken, for the greatest praise of God is expressed in song."

After Matthias died, she continued her work to the end. Out of pastoral concern, she even took on a priestly role-an outrageous act for a woman at the time-and performed a funeral. She was old and weak at the time and had to be carried to the grave, but she conducted the service fully aware of the repercussions. She would have been penalized severely by the city officials, but she died shortly thereafter.

Katharina's motto throughout her life was that Christians could not be silent, that their duty and call was to work for justice and speak for justice. Unique in her boldness as a woman and a lay writer, Katharina Schutz Zell differed from the medieval female teachers in the justification she gave for her writing. Not relying on supernatural or mystical experiences, she drew her authority from scripture and a sense of call. Her Protestant theology underscored the primacy of the word and the responsibilities it brought for everyone. In the face of the call to proclaim the gospel in deed as well as word, existing gender norms proved irrelevant to her, unbiblical even. She provided a model for how things could have been for women as a result of the Reformation. Yet she stands in a league of her own-in terms of her actions, the way she used her voice, her influence, her sense of herself and her calling, and her explicit arguments for her rights as a woman and a Christian.

Katharina is yet another remarkable woman of the Reformation, calling us in these days of Lent to repent of all that stands in the way of the full proclamation of and action upon the gospel. May her spirit inspire us and all who engage in the ministries of word and service. Amen.

 

 

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